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A Manager's Guide to Project Management: The Goals of Project Management

Executive management shoulders the responsibility to conceive, design, implement, and manage the organization’s overall objectives, culture, environment, and processes for all disciplines, including project management. MIchael B. Bender shows how focusing on five key areas will help you drive your organization’s success in projects and programs.
This chapter is from the book

Every organization, whether for-profit or not-for-profit, embraces a strategy to move into the future. Sound strategies involve a synergy of goals working together to move the organization toward its vision. Organizations engage in projects, processes, operations, and research to achieve these strategic goals.

In this book, we explore one of those key actions: projects. I present projects not from the classical project manager’s perspective (enough books have been written about that), but from yours: the executive. We examine your influence over projects, whether intentional or unintentional. You will see how the decisions you make, the culture you generate, and the direction you present determine the successes and failures of projects and programs. I present a sound, comprehensive, yet simple architecture that generates a successful project management business environment—optimizing resources, eliminating waste, achieving all organizational and strategic objectives, and ensuring growth and increased value.

I begin with a brief story.

Alex could have been a biochemist for a pharmaceutical company, a plant designer for a soft-drink manufacturer, a researcher for a polymer manufacturer, an infrastructure architect in an advertising firm’s IT department, the exhibit designer for a museum, or a product manager for an insurance company. Alex’s problems are not technical—they’re based on the way his organization runs projects.

Project management has mushroomed as a serious, recognized management discipline only within the last two decades. Twenty years ago, project management was an esoteric discipline, restricted to large systems integrators (such as RCA, Martin-Marietta, Raytheon, and Sperry-Univac), the construction industry, and a few savvy midsize organizations. Today you can get an MBA in it.

However, only this recognition is new. Project management is as old as mankind. The project managers who built the Egyptian pyramids used the same techniques in place today. Labor relations might have differed, and they might have used different terminology, but Gantt charts (perhaps called Prometheus charts back then), precedence diagrams, and resource leveling were critical to successful pyramid building.

The Problems You Face

Alex’s problems aren’t tactical—they’re based in the organization’s culture, environment, and lack of strategic planning. The problem in China was caused not by bad project management practices, but by a reactionary corporate environment. Although project management offers excellent tools for managing scope change, political, cultural, and environmental factors frequently derail these efforts, plunging the project team into a series of emergencies. Simple concepts and techniques employed at the senior-management level create the right environment to manage project scope change. You can trace most emergencies to either poor project management or, more frequently, their surrounding environment. Alex’s emergency will now cause another: the delay of the current project, which will cause that project to be rushed, which will then cause another emergency, which will cause the next project to be rushed, which will....

As an executive manager, you help establish the personality of the organization. You set the culture, processes, morals, and ethics (both personal and work ethics) for the organization. You do this intentionally or unintentionally, architected or happenchance, planned or evolved—but you do it.

The discipline of project management is well defined. The Project Management Institute (PMI) has written a standard for project management practices (ANSI/PMI 99-001 2008), also known as the Guide to the Project Management Body of Knowledge,1 in its 4th edition at the time of this writing (PMBOK Guide2). It codifies 42 processes with well-defined inputs, tools and techniques, and outputs. Whether your organization conforms to this standard, another standard, or your own methodology, project management is quite well defined as a discipline.

If your organization struggles with projects, it’s not the discipline’s fault. For now, we will blame it on evolution. The practice has evolved from the middle out. Project management in its current format was developed primarily in the 1940s–1950s (Prometheus charts notwithstanding). It concentrated on its own internal processes. With those processes now well developed, it must look outward—or, in our case, upward.

As a seminar leader and management consultant, I frequently find that clients have skilled project managers, yet the organizations still struggle to get projects done on time and on budget. Their problems do not lie within the discipline of project management. Their problems might be the organizational culture, the way project management is viewed within the organization, political strife, structural flaws, departmental silos—a variety of issues can plague even the best project managers. In this book, we pursue these issues and attempt to address them from the executive manager’s perspective.

Starting with the assumption that our project management is sound, let’s examine the influences senior management can have on project success.

Wasted Resources

All MBA programs address resource utilization. As an executive manager, one of your primary objectives is to get more things done (in our case, projects) with fewer resources. You look around your organization and see people working hard, staying late at night; you see a beehive of activity, yet you can’t seem to get projects done on time and on budget. How can such a high level of activity surround the company, yet its projects are constantly delayed or never finished?

Let’s look at some of the results of the cultures we create.

The Project du Jour

Overly dynamic project priorities cause resources to quickly switch among projects and among activities, without finishing the original project or activity. Then suddenly priorities switch again. The result is a string of half-completed projects, exhausted staff, demoralized teams, and little accomplishment.

The Warm-Body Syndrome

When I started training in project management, one common problem facing project managers was a lack of human resources. Today the complaint is not the lack of resources, but the fact that the resources have the wrong skills. Attendees continue to complain that the teams they’re given have little experience in the disciplines they need. Perhaps the most notable example: I often find administrative assistants taking advanced multiproject management seminars with no basic project management training. Their bosses have asked them to manage a major project in addition to their regular responsibilities. Opportunities, situations, and emergencies pop up seemingly without warning. In an attempt to capture the opportunities, handle the situations, or manage the emergencies, we grab the next warm body and throw them at the problem, whether or not that person is qualified.

Staff Doing Project Work and Their Real Jobs

The phrase “my real job” grew out of one of the greatest problems facing project management today: the concept that projects are ancillary activities, falling into the “other jobs as assigned” category of formal job descriptions. They’re viewed as distractions, annoyances, and things that make us work late.

The truth is quite the opposite. Projects are an integral part of business activities. They are as much a part of the organization as process, operations, and research. One of my key objectives in this book is to present tools and concepts to help you successfully integrate these activities, ensuring success on all organizational fronts.

The Need to Multitask

Whether the perceived need to have all employees multitask derives from lack of planning, a truly dynamic environment, or some other cause, multitasking seems to be a requirement of every individual. Yet individuals are just that—individual. Some are good multitaskers, some are specialists. Some people quickly skim across the top of subjects; others delve deeply into them. Demanding that every employee multitask is as ridiculous as demanding that every employee specialize. Organizations need both, and projects need both. Your objective as an executive manager is to build a culture that balances these skills and employees across organizational activities—in this case, across projects.

Projects Not Achieving Their Goals

Good project managers know how to develop project plans that achieve goals. The assumption, of course, is that the goals are defined, clear, and (to some degree) static. Consider some common problems related to achieving goals:

We Didn’t Think of That!

As the project evolves, key stakeholders realize that they forgot something. They rush to the project manager to implement their new requirements—but by doing so, they re-create the same problem. In their haste to get something into the project, they don’t think it through. So it happens again and again. It’s a prime cause of scope creep. The scope of the project creeps upward and onward. This is simply the result of poor planning.

Politics Interferes with Sound Business Decisions

All organizations have their politics. As clever managers, we understand that politics can be beneficial to the organization. Yet as the political power and influence change among the key stakeholders, so do their underlying projects. In such organizations, the project managers keep revising their plans as the political landscape changes, rarely achieving the projects’ goals.

Things Just Change

We live in a dynamic universe—things just change. Project management has well-developed tools and techniques for handling legitimate change and for staving off illegitimate change—all for the mutual benefit of the client, performing organization, and other key stakeholders. The question remaining for the executive is whether your organization supports these techniques or whether political influences, culture, and environmental factors thwart sound change-management practices.

We Get Smarter

As the project evolves, so does our knowledge of it. Clients, the key stakeholders, and senior management all get smarter. Does your culture constantly throw these new ideas at the project manager without regard to schedule or cost, or does your culture evaluate enhancements and judge their value?

Project Overruns and Delays

A variety of issues can cause project overruns and delays. Many of these issues are legitimate, expected, or even planned. Project managers, for example, will recognize new, innovative technologies or dealing with new vendors as project risks and develop contingency plans, time, and money. These examples are not the topic of this discussion. Here we examine those delays and overruns that you can overcome by improving the culture and organizational management. Specifically, we examine the following potential problems.

Forced Deadlines

As humans, we started experiencing forced deadlines the day we were born: nap at 2:00, bottle at 6:30. We continue to see the same effect as we get a bit older: “The book report is due Thursday and you’ll have an outline for me by Monday’s class.” So we grow up developing schedules based on deadlines set by superiors (not necessarily in the skills or intelligence sense, only in the authoritative sense). The results: We learn to back into those deadlines. It doesn’t matter whether the tasks are doable, it doesn’t matter that we have a dozen other items on our lists or what our availability is, and we don’t care whether we throw quality out the window. We’re taught to meet the deadline. It’s a habit, the way we’re brought up. Our estimates are not based on the work and the resources doing the work; they’re based on dates chosen for political reasons by dictatorial personalities. In such cultures, overruns and delays are inevitable.

Poor Project Finance Management

The discipline of project management contains tools and techniques for managing project finances. Interestingly, in our profit-driven culture, these techniques are rarely enforced and frequently poorly implemented. Whether you’re a for-profit company or a not-for-profit organization, sound financial project management is critical to fiscal stability and growth.

The Definition of Done

Did you ever stop working on a task that was almost complete (or one you thought was complete) and later discovered that it wasn’t? Do you remember the time and energy it took you to pick that task back up again and really finish it?

Interestingly, this is one area in which project management has been historically lacking. Although technologies improve, our culture tends to rush us to the next hot task, forcing us to abandon our current task prematurely. You’ll hear statements such as “It’s good enough for government work,” “Ship it—we’ll fix it in the field,” and “It’s good enough for now—we have this other problem....” These decisions are usually time driven, foregoing quality and, interestingly, cost considerations; the more time we wait to finish the task, the more money and waste we incur.

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